It Feels Good to be Running

Yesterday I rushed from lunch with a friend to a work meeting. Luckily the meeting ended early, since a quick check of my email reminded me that I still needed to prepare financials for the next day’s board meeting. I ran back to the office for 40 minutes, entered the latest set of donations into Quickbooks, and whooshed off an email before running out the door to a coaching appointment.

Traffic was heavier than I expected, so I arrived a few minutes late. Yet instead than feeling stressed and overwhelmed, I felt exhilarated and energized. After days of feeling lethargic and mildly depressed, it felt fabulous to be able to roll with so much action. I was in my flow.

I am learning that I have an optimal level of energy that I put out day to day. For the past several weeks, I have been operating under capacity in an effort to recover from a period of heavy stress. Instead of feeling rested and at ease, I was starting to feel depressed, unsure what to do, and unfulfilled. Yet I also know when I try to operate much over my capacity, I burn out from working at an unsustainable level.

I tend to err on the side of operating over capacity, so lately I have been practicing under doing it. However, it’s not working for me. When I am too far under capacity, my self care falls apart. I figure I will get around to meditation later. I can’t think of a good reason why I need to get off Facebook.

I know that operating over capacity can be a coping mechanism. Am I hiding from something? Am I avoiding hard feelings?

In this particular moment, I don’t think so. While running from thing to thing can sometimes be a way to run away, it can also be an efficient way to get things done. It’s efficient for me, as I get more focused and just get things done rather than fretting too much over how to do them. When I am busy, it’s easier to jump into rejuvenating activities like dance or talking with a good friend or writing or watching the season finale of The Voice. (Whoohoo Jermaine!)

I feel liberated, feeling into my natural capacity, feeling how the right tempo and flow unleashes my gifts of energy and motivation.

I know that my particular capacity is different from other people. And that my own capacity changes day to day, especially if I’m sick or been working over capacity for too long. But being present with my natural capacity, today, in this moment, I feel alive.

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Transitions Drag Me Down

Transition creates a huge drag on my ability to be productive.

New staff members have to be hired and trained. People have to pick up work done by former staff members while the new person is coming on board.

I know about this concrete drag. But there is also an emotional drag as well.

I have to process my sadness that good people are leaving. I have to grieve and bury the dreams I had shared with people who are leaving, as those dreams were built around the particular talents and skills of people who will no longer be central to the organization.

I have to process my frustration about picking up extra work. I have to process my overwhelm at having extra work to do, and less help to do it.

I need to make space for building trust and camaraderie with new staff people. We need time to dream our new dreams, laugh at our new inside jokes. We need to explore and find the magical sweet spot that speaks to our common interests and our particular mix of skills, that sweet spot that will make our work not just good but amazing.

All this work doesn’t just take time. It also requires a measure of emotional labor.

I have had a practice of excluding emotional labor from my regular work day. If I’ve had a hard day, I talk with a friend over dinner or call someone who I know will have a good insight. I don’t count this as work hours, even if I spend an hour talking about work.

When I only have the occasional hard day, this works okay. My friends don’t get tired of hearing about my job; they usually have their own stories that we process. There’s a mutuality that works.

But when many days are hard, for weeks and months on end, the emotional labor starts to take a toll on both me and my social circles. The hours of unpaid labor add up. I start to resent my job. My friends start to ask pointed questions about whether my job is bad for my health.

How do we build emotional labor in to the work day, particularly in times of transition when we know it’s absolutely necessary? How does the offloading of emotional labor to our support circles contribute to an unsustainable work place? Does keeping all the emotional processing within the workplace actually work? Or does it just turn into a social worker mess of over processing?

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Letting the Mistakes Go

One of the hardest things about being a new director is facing all the mistakes I make. Especially those mistakes where I know I could have done a better job if I just had more time to plan and consider my response.

Part of the learning curve in a new job is that my to do list just comes at me way too fast. And if I let the mistakes pile up, they start to weigh on me. And then I’m more tentative the next day, more indecisive, questioning my judgment. I don’t have time for this. And it’s not actually helpful.

I’ve instituted a new routine at the end of every work day. It’s especially helpful to mark the end of my day since I’m working at home. But it’s greatest use is helping me reflect on my day, learn what needs learning, and then let it go. The next day, I feel more free to keep trying, keep learning, keep screwing up, and keep learning some more.

I reflect on these five phrases

  • I forgive myself for any pain and suffering I have caused myself or others due to my own ignorance and confusion.
  • I ask forgiveness from all those whose pain and suffering I have caused due to my ignorance and confusion.
  • May I show love for the world by loving myself, just as I am.
  • May I be happy and free.
  • May I take what I learned from today, and use what I have learned to benefit all beings

Then I list five things I learned during the day

  • I need to have energy going into this weekend. Remember it’s better to be present than prepared.
  • Scary calls never seem to be as bad as I anticipate
  • I can speak clearly about my concerns, and it actually helps everyone.
  • People need rest. More than I think.
  • Just starting to jot down a messy list can magically turn into a polished PowerPoint presentation.

Often these learnings aren’t just from my mistakes – I am gathering information about what’s working so I remember not to get stuck by phone calls or fear of speaking.

Also posted for me to reflect on every time I sit at my computer: “Remember: There is no amount of self care that will magically make this situation easy. Some situations are just hard. Keep breathing. Relax into greater wisdom.”

Do you have daily practices that help keep you sane? What works for you?

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Entry Wishes

Enter as you wish to be in it. Exit as you wish to continue. – Havi Brooks

As I enter this new role as an Acting Director, what qualities do I want to have in the role?

Grounded power, ease, insight, compassion, sovereignity.

How does my approach change if I enter as I wish to be in this role?

I notice and celebrate the places of ease, the places where my insight and sovereignity make a difference. I bring compassion to the harder places, and ask myself “What action demonstrates my grounded power? What brings ease?” I tell these stories too.

What can I do now to set things up for entry?

I have enlisted a lot of help for clearing out all the old stuff that continues to come up. I have set up a lot of self care practices, from meditation to eating well to seeking out nourishing friendships to keeping my room extra clean since it’s now also my work space. These things all support me in having access to grounded power, ease, insight, compassion, and sovereignity.

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What To Do Next? The Magic of Random

I am constantly seeking new ways to manage my to do list. It can regularly throw me into a panic.

Even when I write down all the things, there are so many. Should I work first on a blog post? Or something for work? Or maybe call a friend I haven’t talked to in ages? Ugh, I can’t even see the top of my desk – maybe I should clean that off first. Crap, I also need to clean the bathroom!

It doesn’t take long for me to start spinning. Which means I’m getting exactly nothing done.

Not Sure What’s Next? Pick at Random

It seems so obvious in retrospect.* If I can’t find a good reason for choosing the next right thing, and if it’s not intuitively clear, the best option is to do something. Anything. And trust that even if it isn’t exactly the right next thing to work on, I’ve at least done one thing instead of getting stuck in an endless loop of stuck. Plus it’s likely that working on one thing actually helps me work on all the other things too.

How To Randomize a To Do List

Step 1: Write down all the things I have to do. Only include ones I can actually do right now.

Step 2: Label each item with a number, starting with 1.

Step 3: Use a random number generator to pick one of things.

Step 4: Do it.

Repeat as long as I want. Building in some breaks is advised.

Watch the Magic Happen

I am consistently amazed at which tasks randomly get picked for me. Like the day I didn’t want to meditate, even though I’m trying to meditate every day for 30 minutes. I put meditation on the list, and figured if I was meant to do it, it would be selected. Of course, it was the FIRST THING selected.

Or the people I’ve contacted when normally it takes me weeks to connect with people. Or the proliferation of blog posts that happen when I can put several ideas on a list, and just wait for them to get selected at random.

I’m not completely beholden to the number generator. Sometimes I still pick my own tasks, when it’s clear to me that one feels more important or urgent. But the only reason I can skip a task is if it’s actually time to go to bed.

*I am eternally grateful to Beth Wodzinski for suggesting the random to do list! It’s totally changed my world.

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Whoosh! The Bottleneck Was Removed

Just last week I sat with pools of dread, unsure how this Acting Director business would unfold.

It’s unfolding with a quick rush of energy. When a bottleneck is removed, things flow more quickly than normal. Work to shift staff and projects into place – work I thought might take a couple of weeks – was complete in three days.

The layer of dread has lifted, revealing a well of unprocessed frustration, anger, and inadequacy. Frustration and anger at past work situations where there was too much work, too much hard, not enough resources, not enough capacity. Inadequacy when I left that anger unexpressed, internalized it, and then endlessly analyzed “what’s wrong with me that I can’t handle this?” It’s still sitting heavy in my chest, just to the left of my sternum. My heart burns.

Slightly Future Me knows how this gets resolved. She is on the other side, the side where I’m not bringing quite so many unprocessed feelings to the table. The side where I’m expressing my frustration and anger appropriately, as a way to set clear boundaries and forge strong opinions.

What does Slightly Future Me have to say?

SFM: Oh! I am so much closer than you think. I’m so close, we barely have anything to talk about.

Me: But it feels like there’s still so much chest pain. It’s hard to believe that won’t take weeks to clear.

SFM: Remember the whoosh of energy when a bottleneck is removed? It’s not just about the organizational bottleneck. You’ve removed an internal bottleneck, a big one we’ve been working on for ages. Things that seem like they should take weeks are going to be done in days.

Me: Is there anything I can do to keep supporting it?

SFM: Meditation – just sitting with it and letting it unwind. Maybe try those trauma release exercises too.

Me: Is there anything else I can do to leave you little presents to make your day better?

SFM: Our weekend plans fell through … it would be lovely to make some new ones. And shimmy pop! And spend some time mucking in details this week – clean out the inbox and the phone messages please! Also, we should schedule a conversation with a slightly-future-version of me. Our next challenge is another layer of inadequacy around connecting with great spiritual beings who we need to call on for help.

Me: I thought we were already working on inadequacy? And it was going to be resolved soon?

SFM: Yes, we’re working on inadequacy/anger. This next layer is inadequacy/needs. There are lots of aspects of inadequacy for us to deal with. One of the many perils of living in a capitalist culture, with 24/7 media telling us that we aren’t good enough.

Me: Grrrrrr.

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Now Is Not Then

This week, I find myself poised to be named Acting Director at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. It’s a temporary solution to support another staff member who will be on leave. We’re hoping this distribution of leadership will jump start our intended move to a staff collective this year.

I feel deeply honored to be asked to step up in this way. And deeply in awe of everything that has unfolded over the past two years, since I decided to move to the Bay Area to be more connected day to day with socially engaged Buddhists. I’m in an even more strategic position to fulfill my dream of trying out new models of governance in a Buddhist organization.

But it’s not all easy. I’ve been sitting with a lot of dread in my chest and throat, a sense of fear and trepidation about what I am getting myself into.

A certain amount of this is normal. There’s a lot of work to be done, and I’m not sure that I’ll be able to get it all done in a 40 hour work week. There are a lot of unanswered questions about how much others will be able to step up to help. I may be shouldering a lot in the next few weeks.

But a large part of this is not about now.

1. What does this remind me of?

So much of this is unprocessed anger and fear from my past experience with nonprofits. Some of it is directed outward at nonprofits that continue to work people until they burn out, unwilling to make the hard decisions that would make our work more sustainable. Some of it is directed toward me too – can I trust myself to really take care of myself this time?

2. How is now not then?

Now – I have a huge set of practices that I didn’t even have a clue about when I was last an executive director. Meditation, compassion, equanimity, lovingkindness. When I learned those practices, I was blown away. “If only I had known about these when I was a director, my experience would have been completely different!” Now I get to learn just how different they might be.

Now – I work in an environment that supports me in using these practices. Even ASKS me to incorporate these practices throughout my work.

Now – I also have a whole set of practices for interacting with my stuff. Talking with monsters and walls, learning the patterns with Shiva Nata, emergency calming techniques, how to enter and exit consciously. And a million other helpful things that I had never even heard about, much less practiced for the past year or more.

Now – I know going in the problems of burnout, overwork, and how nonprofits struggle to make hard decisions. I can enter as I wish to be in it. Which probably means doing less, more slowly, but more deeply. There will be more practice of saying no to say yes.

3. What qualities do I want to bring to this encounter?

Courage. Love. Sovereignty. Possibility.

Presence. Laughter. Sustainability. Fierceness.

4. What do I want?

To midwife the organization into its next iteration. To stay open to not knowing what that actually looks like or how much of this process is mine to do.

To find my practices of self care so solid, so natural, that I stop telling the story that “I can not be trusted to take care of myself.”

5. What do we have in common?

(I’m reading this as “what do I have in common with this role of Acting Director”). Ten things:

  1. We meditate
  2. We use other self-reflective practices to bring our best selves to work
  3. We open our hearts with practices of compassion, loving kindness, joy & equanimity
  4. We’re interested in non-hierarchial leadership models
  5. We need to get more rooted after a period of transition
  6. We need to not get so rooted that we can’t still be transplanted as things continue to transition
  7. We need to ask for help from others as a way to be less hierarchical
  8. We are both terrified and hopeful about the future of the organization
  9. We are walking forward into a dark forest full of unknowns, slowly feeling our way
  10. We are resting in a larger field of interconnected, supportive people.

6. And how will this experience help me in the future?

I will certainly be learning a lot more about my practices of self care. Even if they completely fall apart, I’ll have new information about how to retool my self care tools to be more effective the next time.

I also am getting another set of lessons about nonprofit management. Even if things completely fall apart, I’ll have new information about what works and doesn’t work when trying to shore up a nonprofit.

7. Without having to appreciate this situation, what might be useful about it?

I don’t love that I’m feeling so much dread about taking on this role. I wish I could be unabashedly enthusiastic about it.

But having to process this old dread is really forcing me to think about how critical my self-care is going to be in this, and how important it’s going to be for me to start saying no to many upcoming things. I’m wanting to carve out lots of time for self care and reflection. And I wouldn’t be quite so intentional about this if it didn’t feel quite so dire.

8. What might help this encounter be less agonizing more harmonious?

I could ask Slightly Future Me who knows more about how we are aligned with this role of Acting Director in cool and amazing unanticipated ways.

I could refresh my memory of some good Emergency Calming Techniques, so they are easy to access when I am in a panic.

I could make a bag of slips specific to self care, and pull one out every day plus every time I find myself in a panic.

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Planting Seeds

Planting Sunflower Seeds

Creative Commons License photo credit: tjmwatson

Not Working As Planned

“I’m planting seeds. Planting seeds.” I was muttering to myself again, speed walking up Mission Street past Yerba Buena Gardens. I was trying to catch up with the march that had a 10 minute head start on me, thousands of San Franciscans protesting in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street and people around the world on October 15. I had folded up the banner I was carrying, since it was too big and unwieldy to carry by myself.

I wasn’t planning on marching alone that day. I had made plans to meet up with two different people, and had put the call out to a thousand more. I really could have used a day off from organizing, but people seemed interested in marching and I wanted to support any glimmer of interest in Buddhist participation in the Occupy movements locally in the Bay Area.

But here I was, alone, feeling ridiculous that I couldn’t even carry the banner in a way that people could see who I was with. I felt like a failure, like I was wasting time and money and energy on a lost cause.

“When planting a tree, if you want to do it the right way and get fruit from it, how should you go about it in order to have a relaxed mind? You do that which is your responsibility. Getting hold of the sapling is your job; digging the hole is your job; planting it, fertilizing and watering it, and keeping the insects off it is your job. That’s it. Stop here. How fast or slow it grows isn’t your job. Let go of this part.” – Ajahn Chah in Being Dharma

Some days, it is so hard to remember my job as a community organizer. Fostering the conditions where people can come together, can show up, can take on leadership – this is my job. Ensuring people show up isn’t my job. How much leadership they take on isn’t my job. Wrapping up my ideas of success around having a certain number of people show up, or having people take over leadership, or having an intensely powerful experience – this is all out of my control.

How Do I Let Go?

This is where I’ve learned to be a better community organizer by studying Buddhism and meditation. I can say over and over and over again – this is not my job! Do not be attached to outcomes. Just don’t do it! But how do I actually do this? How do I practice letting go of outcomes over and over and over again until it feels easy?

In Buddhist practice, we don’t do it by starting with the hardest things. We don’t start with letting go of the outcome of an event that we’ve poured our heart and body and mind into.

We start simply. We start on the cushion, watching our breath move in and out. We watch our mind do what minds do which is THINK and PLAN and TELL STORIES and CHATTER. We watch how we are attached to certain outcomes of meditation. My mind should be quiet! My breath should come easily! I should be feeling peace instead of panic!

We look at these attachments first because there’s so much less riding on it. It is just us with our minds and bodies. No one is depending on our breath being a certain way or our mind being quiet. No one can see what’s going on inside, whether we are still or a tornado.

If Practice Is Hard, Taking It to Our Work is Harder

And yet it is still SO HARD to let go of these attachments about how our meditation is going. Especially when they are enmeshed with guilt and shame, with a running commentary about how we should be better, smarter, more relaxed. About how we are inadequate and unworthy. How we are a waste of space just sitting here, not even able to sit still correctly.

If all this is happening when we are simply sitting, imagine how much more is happening when we have other peoples’ needs also at stake? When we’re sure that others will judge us by how many people come out, who attends, whether it’s a transformative experience? These voices of shame and inadequacy scream louder and louder.

I feel like when I was an organizer without Buddhism, I found ways to cover up those voices. I would hush the stories of inadequacy and tell myself other stories about how I was adequate and worthy. I would fake confidence until I felt something that looked like confidence. I would work harder and faster, trying to quiet the voices by demonstrating just how hard working I could be.

And these strategies worked for awhile. People judged me to be successful, and I felt proud of what I could accomplish.

But these nagging doubts lingered. Patching over inadequacy and unworthiness was like putting a towel over an infected wound. I don’t see it anymore, but it doesn’t heal. Instead it gets worse. As I felt worse, I also had less capacity to manage my work, as I was depleted by all the faking, all the working harder and faster. Things unraveled.

Practicing New Practices

During the march last week, I tried out some other practices. There was a lot of breathing as I walked fast to try to catch up with other marchers. When I got anxious, I returned again and again to the words “I’m planting seeds” to remind myself why I was there. When I finally caught up with the march, I found a way to stretch my arms wide enough so the banner was mostly visible. I walked with pride, in connection with others marching even though I felt lonely.

After letting go of this outcome, I was happily surprised to not be alone for long. A nearby marcher who practices with an allied organization saw me and offered to hold the other end of my banner. She ended up marching with me for the next two hours. We eventually met up with the other two people who I had plans to connect with, who helped our contingent feel a little larger. A few others came up and thanked us for being there, glad to see our presence.

Whether people connected with me or not that day was no longer the point. Some days people show up, and some days they don’t. Some days people jump at the chance to lead. Other days everyone averts their eyes when you ask for help. Whichever day it is, the task is the same. Keep planting seeds.

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Notes on Racism from Occupied Oakland

Oakland is Occupied (art by dignidadrebelde.com)

Today was my third day at Occupy Oakland, an Occupy encampment that started October 10 in front of City Hall in Downtown Oakland.

On my first day, I brought a group of meditators to sit for peace. A mostly white group, one of the people who attended talked to me privately about how they would have felt safer and more comfortable sitting with us had our group represented more diversity. I agreed, and committed to making more connections with communities of color who meditate.

On my second day, I walked in to a scene at the plaza steps where an African American man was screaming at white folks, “Go home!” As a video camera followed him around, he lunged at people as other men held him back and tried to calm him down, worried police would use his anger as an excuse to intervene violently. “You aren’t from here!” he screamed. “You don’t represent Oakland!” An African American woman was also there speaking with calm fierceness about how it was problematic for white people not from Oakland to claim space in the middle of Oakland as “theirs” to occupy. As she described it, this way of thinking isn’t different from the white people who displace people of color through gentrification in Oakland, or the white settlers who stole the land from the Ohlone through colonization.

On my third day, today, I marched through the streets of Oakland with other queers in solidarity with the Occupy encampment. Police showed up at the beginning of the march to escort us through the streets, and a mostly white group of folks told the cops to go away. As the anger escalated, some people of color stepped in to try to mediate. I turned to a friend, “I worry when white folks escalate anger at police, when we aren’t the ones who are going to feel the brunt of police brutality.” We ended the escalation by marching off without police escort. The police escorted anyway, with about 8 cop cars with lights on blocking the whole road behind us. “Leave it to queers,” I said, “to be sure our march comes complete with flashing lights and an entourage.”

On the march, I spoke with a person who had attended the people of color caucus yesterday. “A bunch of white folks showed up and demanded to be there. Even when we tried to escort them out, they wouldn’t leave.” I shared that I was planning to attend the white anti-racist working group that was meeting this evening, because I’d heard about the incident and had witnessed other incidents myself. “It would be amazing to have a wall of white folks outside of our meeting with signs. ‘Feel excluded? Talk to me about it.’ It would be great for them to be able to express their frustrations, but not in a way that’s really painful in our meeting.”

I walked up to the meeting for white allies. About eight of us standing were around, introducing ourselves. Then another four walked up. A crowd of eight ambled over and were suddenly twenty strong. We made a circle, and kept expanding it until almost fifty white anti-racist allies were sitting in a circle to discuss how best to support anti-racism and people of color at Occupy Oakland. I loved that folks were thinking about change at all levels: We need to respond to this particular request from the people of color caucus. We need to foster white anti-racist training workshops. We need to engage white people drawn to Occupy Oakland in the struggles of people of color in the surrounding community. We need to support more white anti-racist leaders in taking up major roles within Occupy Oakland.

Oakland is historically a site of significant anti-racist organizing — the Black Panther Party was founded here in 1966. Yet the stories coming out of other Occupy sites also indicate that when we work together under the umbrella of “the 99%,” that we absolutely must do the work to heal racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, ageism, and other oppression.

We don’t become the 99% by declaring it so. We become the 99% by doing the work to heal what has previously divided us.

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Being Peace / Protesting War

Peace March at Golden GateNow that I’m working at the intersection of social activism and Buddhism, I get to articulate my previously mostly silent but internal feelings that Buddhist thought has much to offer social activism, and social engagement in the world has much to offer a Buddhist who can get stuck on the meditation cushion.

Today, the Tenth Anniversary of 9/11, I walked the Golden Gate with hundreds of others, declaring peace in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and in the US that were waged in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy. It was my first demonstration bringing my Buddhist face as my primary face, and I found myself curious how it would feel different.

I woke this morning glad to have sat several days of meditation in the past week, as I was strongly in touch with the depths of kindness in my heart. In other times, I may have contemplated my anger and bitterness at Bush and other political figures who started these wars. Instead, on my bus ride in to the city, I tapped in to feelings of peace, safety, kindness, and compassion.

When I walked in to the rally space, I felt ready to rally for peace. On the inside, it seemed markedly different than showing up for an anti-war rally. I looked at people with a silent smile, felt confident and strong despite awkwardly holding a 6-foot banner by myself. I didn’t feel the need to do, to run around and feel anxious about what was happening or not happening. I just felt the need to be peace.

It’s a different path to change, to believe that the greatest influence is to first embody that which I seek. There is a lot of comfort in this, as it’s entirely in my locus of control, while changing the policies of my government feels mostly outside of my control.

Yet I don’t completely relinquish the power I do have to influence government and other social systems by focusing my attention only on internal peace. I bring whatever peace I have, even if it’s not fully perfected, to the rally. I mindfully walk in our march across the bridge, feeling each movement of my walking as I shift weight, lift my right foot, move it forward, and place it heel first. Another shift of weight, then the left foot lifts, moves forward, and gently comes down on the concrete. As we approach the middle of the bridge to stand together in solidarity, I find my own blend of both lifting my voice with others in wise speech for peace and holding a noble silence of meditation practice. These practices helped me stay mindful about where I was, why I was there, and kept the link to peace and peacefulness strong in my heart.

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